Landmark decision on right to counsel marks 50th anniversary
Clarence Earl Gideon was a 52-year-old mechanic who changed the course of legal history. He is seen here shortly after his release from prison on Aug. 6, 1963, in Panama City, Fla.
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Monday will mark the 50th anniversary of what was then hailed as a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court promising the right to an attorney to anyone charged with a crime.
In the years since then, using Gideon v. Wainwright as a guide, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of the right to counsel -- which now extends to juveniles, misdemeanor counts and each step in the criminal court process.
The current court even recently extended the right to argue ineffective assistance of counsel for defendants who have pleaded guilty.
Yet, in many states across the country, the right to have an attorney has been diminished by decreasing budgets, increasing caseloads and a lack of political interest.
In Pennsylvania, the situation is dire. It remains the only state that provides absolutely no funding for indigent defense, instead making it the responsibility of the individual counties.
In Luzerne County, the problem became so bad last year that the chief public defender stopped accepting new clients and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against county administrators in an attempt to force them to provide additional funding and resources.
Similar litigation was filed against Allegheny County in 1996, and is under consideration again by the ACLU, said Witold Walczak, the state legal director.
"The ACLU hopes that the General Assembly will use the 50th anniversary of Gideon to consider and enact the recommendations made in 2011 by the Joint Legislative Commission to begin moving Pennsylvania towards a constitutional indigent defense system," he said.
If not, Mr. Walczak continued, he expects to pursue more lawsuits against individual counties and, eventually, against the commonwealth.
In late 2011, the Joint State Government Commission published a report on indigent defense in Pennsylvania, heavily criticizing the lack of funding on a statewide level.
"This failure is particularly burdensome to the poorer counties, which must contend with the dual handicap of scant resources and high crime rates."
An introduction to the report noted that the "Kids for Cash" scandal in Luzerne County, in which juvenile court judges received kickbacks for sending children to be housed in correctional facilities, continued unchecked for years, at least in part, because the juveniles had inadequate representation.
"This scandal illustrates the need for statewide structures to ensure that local [indigent defense systems] will be overseen and held accountable for unprofessional practices and will be independent of political and judicial interference."
The advisory committee that wrote the report urged the Legislature to perform its duties "under the U.S. Constitution and as a civilized society by finally addressing the deficiencies that undermine its indigent criminal defense system by reforming the system to comply with national standards."
Those standards were established by the case of Gideon v. Wainwright.
In 1961, a Florida man named Clarence Gideon was accused of breaking into a pool hall and charged with a felony. When he appeared in court, Gideon asked the judge to appoint an attorney to represent him.
The judge explained that in Florida, an attorney would be appointed only when a defendant was charged with a capital offense.
Gideon went on to represent himself at trial, and according to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, "conducted his defense about as well as could be expected from a layman."
Still, he was found guilty by the jury and sentenced to serve five years in prison.
Gideon appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case was argued on Jan. 15, 1963, and the unanimous decision was delivered just two months later -- on March 18.
"[R]eason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him," wrote Justice Hugo Black. "This seems to us to be an obvious truth."
Mr. Walczak agrees.
"Here, it's kind of a war. The prosecution is trying to put you in jail. In our criminal justice system, without a lawyer, it's not a fair fight, and whenever you have unfairly matched opponents, bad things happen: Innocent people go to jail. People who are guilty of something get harsher sentences."
David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center in Boston, said it is an issue of liberty.
"The Bill of Rights was created to prevent tyranny over individual liberty," he said. "The government shouldn't be able to take away an individual's liberty without the process being fair."
The justices said much the same thing in Gideon.
"[L]awyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries," they wrote. "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours."
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the question comes down to the very identity of our nation.
"Americans are people of fairness. They're people who care about process," he said. "We treat people the way we want to be treated. That's really what's at stake here. We do this because of who we are."
Prior to the Gideon decision, the Supreme Court had interpreted the Sixth Amendment, which reads: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the assistance of counsel for his defense" differently.
Under a 1942 opinion known as Betts, a divided court said that the right to counsel is not "a fundamental right," that the Sixth Amendment applied only to defendants charged in federal court and that it did not extend to individual states.
The Gideon court reversed course, finding that through the 14th Amendment, states are responsible for providing indigent defense.
But, in Pennsylvania, that responsibility has been passed down to individual counties.
The commonwealth does not have any mechanism in place to ensure the process is working, Mr. Carroll said.
"The fact they don't even have that is really telling," he said. "They've completely sidestepped their whole responsibility under Gideon."
Even some of the historically most deficient states, like Michigan and Idaho, have taken initial steps toward reform, Mr. Carroll said.
"There is reason for optimism. The Department of Justice has begun efforts to enforce the right to counsel and that is making many jurisdictions take notice," he said, noting a December agreement between the department's civil rights division and Shelby County, Tenn., regarding its system for representing juveniles.
"When policymakers seriously look at this question, change is possible," he said.
Mr. Harris is not surprised by the lack of public concern -- particularly by political leaders -- to improve indigent defense, because there is no constituency for indigent defendants.
"It's pretty tough for any political figure to stand up and say let's spend money on them when we have schools to fund and many desperate needs," he said. But, he continued, "It isn't about the defendant you see in front of you. We don't do it for them. We do it for us. We do it because that's our value -- being fair and treating people with justice, even if they don't deserve it."
First Published March 17, 2013 12:08 am